Faculty Reflection: The Importance of Preparing an Effective Syllabus

A syllabus is a critical component of every class, providing students with key information and expectations. However, an overloaded syllabus can be intimidating or overwhelming, which is what licensed educational psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist May Nguyen learned while taking ACUE’s “Preparing an Effective Syllabus” module.

After completing this module, and earning her ACUE Certificate in Effective College Instruction earlier this year, Nguyen has been excited to implement what she’s learned with her work at California State University, East Bay (CSUEB) and the California School of the Blind Assessment Center.

She and many other educators across the country have been able to take advantage of ACUE programming through an initiative called “Scaling Instructional Excellence for Student Success,” which ACUE launched in collaboration with the National Association of System Heads in 2020.

CSUEB joined the initiative during the 2020-21 academic year, making it available through its Faculty Center for Excellence in Teaching. CSUEB is among eight campuses in the California State University System that provide faculty with funding for ACUE programming.

May Nguyen is a licensed educational psychologist and nationally certified school psychologist with the California School of the Blind Assessment Center and an ACUE Certified adjunct faculty member at the School Psychology Program at California State University, East Bay.

In this post, Nguyen shares her ACUE experience as an ACUE Certified faculty member and how she engaged with students in a project to create a graphic syllabus, part of the module on Preparing an Effective Syllabus.

Why did you join ACUE?

I joined the ACUE program at Cal State East Bay to further enhance my instructional design strategies and improve student success in my course. As technology and society, in general, continues to progress, professional development opportunities like those provided by ACUE are vital to continuously adapt our pedagogy to effectively engage and educate our students. I highly recommend faculty members invest their time in the Effective Online Teaching Practices program. ACUE has given me many tools to add to my teaching toolbox and positively impacted my students.

What did you learn that surprised or challenged you?

Prior to ACUE, one teaching and learning topic that I have focused on is creating an effective syllabus. Through Quality Matters training, my syllabus was strengthened by adding specific details, such as communication expectations, learner interaction expectations, prerequisites, and assignment rubrics.

After ACUE, I realized my efforts to provide explicit instructions and expectations in my syllabus equated to an overwhelming amount of text for students to review. While the amount of clarifying details is beneficial for students, ACUE helped me to rethink how to present the information to better engage my students. One common problem among faculty is having to repeatedly explain directions or expectations when the information is clearly stated in the syllabus. A highly structured and detailed syllabus has limited usefulness if students do not access it.

What is a graphic syllabus and how does it facilitate student success?

A graphic syllabus is a visual representation of salient syllabus information (e.g., netiquette guidelines, grading policies, instructor contact information, weekly structure, support services contact information, and assignments and assessment point distribution). The simple text and graphically displayed information of a graphic syllabus is an engaging supplement to a traditional text-based syllabus.

An effective graphic syllabus is an accessible, visually appealing summary of the key aspects of the course. This quick visual reference to important syllabus information facilitates student success by succinctly communicating details about the course in a clear and compelling format to increase students’ understanding and set a positive tone for the course.

What steps did you follow to create a graphic syllabus?

Our students really are so creative and adept with technology. It is amazing to see what they create when provided a brief idea and some structure.

For a graphic syllabus assignment worth a few extra credit points, I gave my students the option to choose between creating graphics related to my syllabus or graphics with advice to future students of my course. My students submitted awesome graphics, videos, and short narratives that will help many students to be successful in my course. Having students generate content allows them to innovate and connect deeply with the material. Another benefit of student-generated content is that their language and visuals are often more relevant and relatable to their peers.

Is there anything you would do differently?

The original infographic syllabus that I shared on LinkedIn was created by one of my students, Stephanie Sheridan, for my Crisis in Schools course. It is informative, well-organized and visually attractive.

One thing that I would do differently is provide guidance on how to increase the accessibility of the graphic syllabus. Ways to increase the accessibility of a graphic syllabus include using high-contrast colors in the design and legible font. In addition, formatting the graphic so that a screen reader can read it properly can further improve compatibility.

CSUN’s Universal Design Center provides excellent guidance on how to create accessible infographics. CSUN is my go-to resource for guidance on accessibility topics. I highly recommend reviewing guidance documents on accessibility first before starting to draft a graphic syllabus. Broaching accessibility might seem like a daunting task; however, utilizing university support can really help to ease anxiety about taking these necessary steps to ensure access for all. For example, CSUEB Online Campus’s Senior eLearning Specialist Cheryl Saelee patiently guided me through the variety of accessibility tools provided for faculty and significantly helped me through my course redesign. In addition, consider providing students an extra credit opportunity of creating graphics for the syllabus.

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